Nonfiction

I’m still reading about how French women do it better

Despite coming across the astute reporting in this 2017 Racked piece with the great title How to Sell a Billion Dollar Myth Like a French Girl, I’m still reading about how French women do it better.

I realize that no woman is perfect, but somehow, as I told Ben last week, the idea that there is a whole class of women out there who eat what they like and don’t get fat, enjoy wine, always look elegant, and wear only matching lingerie somehow gives me hope for myself.

FrenchThe first book I finished last week was All You Need to Be Impossibly French: A Witty Investigation into the Lives, Lusts, and Little Secrets of French Women by Helena Frith Powell. This book was great for prying open the myth of the perfect French woman. Frith Powell interviews a dozen or so French women, most known for their contributions to the world of fashion, business, or politics, and runs through their opinions and tips on a slew of style-related topics, from workouts to botox.

The women Frith Powell describes are mostly “pencil thin” and always “well turned out.” Normally, reading things like this would be an opportunity for me to give myself a hard time for my distinct lack of elegance, penchant for junk food, and myriad other sins. But to be completely honest, I felt inspired. It seems like Frith Powell was too. Her writing about these women is part tribute, part exposé with a tone along the lines of “You can’t be the perfect woman all the time…but tell me your secrets just in case!”

And, of course, the book raised my feminist hackles. Are these women really wearing matching lingerie for themselves? Are they really staying stick thin for themselves? Or is this just the patriarchy (apparently alive and well in France) doing some of its best work? Frith Powell gives the impression that it’s some of column A and some of column B.

ParisInLoveAnother woman worshiping with me at the altar of French style is academic and romance writer Eloisa James. I listened to the audiobook version of her memoir Paris in Love last week.

After her breast cancer went into remission, James and her husband, also a professor and originally from Italy, take a teaching sabbatical and move with their two kids to Paris.

James warns us that the memoir began as a series of Facebook posts on her personal account, which she used to keep her family up to date on their lives in Paris. But her observations are so interesting and humorous that they ended up forming a memoir. James is an adept writer with a knack for imagery and creating a narrative in both the short, post-style entries and the longer, more essay-like parts. I found I liked them both but wished some of the short pieces delved deeper into the topics at hand.

Instead, the memoir is a simple but enjoyable reflection on the Parisian lifestyle and her family’s forays into and foibles within it. James covers the usual ground: French parenting, style, weight loss, food, smoking, and romance, among the chief explorations. But she also talks about her children, whom she admits provide most of the humor in the story, as they navigate the local Italian school at different levels.

All in all, two good reads in which to indulge my obsession and I’ll be looking at reading books by both authors in the future.

Standard
Nonfiction, What Ben Read

Tristan Gooley is a Goddamn Treasure

GooleyOne of the classic human trade-offs is gaining technology and forgetting a corresponding skill. We get a cell phone with a built in address book and quickly stop remembering phone numbers. A society develops written language and gives up its oral traditions. GPS gives turn by turn directions and people stop reading maps. Maps themselves are technology, supplanting a more elemental knowledge of how to find our way in the world.

When technology begins to replace skill, the gains are often obvious while the losses, slower and less evident, are only mourned after the fact when it is “too late” to do anything about them. And that’s where our man Gooley comes in. He knows how to navigate in the oldest of old-fashioned ways, using nothing but keen observation with all of his senses. He also has the insight and education to start communicating to us what we have been missing.

Gooley deftly bridges the gap between us and an old skill. He knows exactly what we’ve lost, and he makes a strong case as to why it matters. He speaks the language of the 21st century and seems almost completely at home within it. No wild-eyed prophet crying out in the wilderness here. Just a friendly, erudite voice saying, “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to get out and learn some nifty tricks and secrets about nature and the world around you?”

I just finished “How to Read Nature,” having previously read “The Natural Navigator” and “The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs.**” As you can see by the titles, there is some overlap of themes and material. But at least so far he’s managed to both stick to his broader themes and keep each book fresh and engaging.

If you are considering checking one of them out, “How to Read Nature” is actually a great place to start. It’s brief and compact, with a nice balance of the philosophical and the practical. There were a couple parts where one of his wisecracks didn’t quite land as intended (he’s generally pretty funny) or the flow of the book wasn’t perfectly polished, but these minor quibbles were easy to gloss over.

Gooley really shines when it comes to making his topic approachable. He recommends picking any aspect of nature that one finds interesting and using that as a means to greater understanding of the larger world. Flowers, birds, trees, stars, insects, rocks…it really doesn’t matter. It’s all connected at some level. So start with something that piques your interest and see where it takes you. Gooley peppers the book with brief exercises designed to get the reader started on the path to keener observation.

Meanwhile his obvious enthusiasm shines through on every page as he makes a strong case that we could all enhance our lives by becoming more aware of the natural world around us. I live in the city and grew up in cities. My life is unlikely to ever depend on my ability to locate true north by observing the stars. But having that knowledge gives an extra sense of being grounded in the world and a surprising amount of satisfaction.

4.5/5 trees. Definitely recommend.

** Some of the titles are different for the U.K. editions. If you’re in the U.S., read the U.S. versions. He notes that he has changed some of the specific examples in order to provide more relevant information for North American readers.

Standard
2018 Classics Challenge, Fiction, What Shannon Read

Middlemarch: Vanquished at Last

19089This post used to be subtitled “Waving the White Flag.” You guys, I almost gave up. Middlemarch by George Eliot is a novel that I felt was leaving a gaping hole in my literary repertoire. Now that I think about it, I believe I chose to take a class on the Romantics in college rather than a class on the Victorian novel. So, I missed this novel somehow.

And I almost gave up on it.

Honestly, between Dorothea Brook, whom I found insufferable, and the lengthy expostulation on politics, I could not take it. I’m not against politics in books on the whole and this one, especially, is known for its exploration of Parliamentary reform. So, I get it. That stuff was important to Eliot. It shaped both her world and the world she wrote about. But, man, it just bored me to tears. I even tried to listen to the story via Audible, read by my all-time favorite narrator, and that was worse because I got bored and tuned it out.

Last week, when I looked ahead on my Kindle and realized I was only halfway done, I thought, “It’s time to wave the white flag.”

But then, thanks to the LitHub daily newsletter, I was alerted to Jennifer Egan’s post for The Guardian on how Eliot’s love life played into her writing of Middlemarch. I read it and that bit of context gave me a new appreciation for the novel, so I decided to plug on in the interest of seeing what happens to these characters.

Anyway, as Egan says, this is the story of three marriages of different classes and kinds. The primary is Dorothea’s marriage to Mr. Casaubon, who is an aging scholar intent on researching his latest project. His personality is dry and not many people find him anything but a bore, but Dorothea, who is strikingly beautiful but quite pious, is drawn to him because she’s made it her life’s goal to help and support a great man with a great mind. It’s a telling situation because Dorothea has lots of ideas and opinions of her own, and she wants desperately to live a large and meaningful life, but she can only see putting her desires to use via passionate support of a good husband.

Sadly, Casaubon just wants a wife who will keep him company and keep his house:

Providence, in its kindness, had supplied him with the wife he needed. A wife, a modest young lady, with the purely appreciative, unambitious abilities of her sex, is sure to think her husband’s mind powerful. Whether Providence had taken equal care of Miss Brooke in presenting her with Mr. Casaubon was an idea which could hardly occur to him. Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy.

I feel for Dorothea but I also found her piety exasperating. She gives up riding, even though she loves it, because, as far as I could tell, it’s a form of self-indulgence because she enjoys it. Uuugh. This is what religion does to some people.

Anyway, I much prefer sensible Mary Garth who is of the middle class and must work for her living as rich Mr. Featherstone’s nurse. At one point early on Rosamund Vincy, niece of Featherstone and daughter of the town mayor, who’s brother Fred is in love with Mary Garth (I know, I’m digging into the weeds), asks Mary what she’s been up to, and Mary replies “I? Oh, minding the house—pouring out syrup—pretending to be amiable and contented—learning to have a bad opinion of everybody.”

She became my favorite character, along with Mrs. Cadwallader, the rector’s wife, and Dorothea’s beloved sister Celia. They’re the women in the novel who possess the endearing combination of good sense and wit. They add some much needed jocularity and even sarcasm to counteract the seriousness of the other characters.

This is a very superficial discussion of likes and dislikes about the novel, but if you’d like to plumb the depths, I’d recommend Egan’s post to get you started. I’ve also checked out Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch. We’ll see how much patience I have for it.

If you’ve read Middlemarch, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

Standard
Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Alive, Alive Oh!: And Other Things That Matter

30231738I know it’s early goings yet, but this book is a definite contender for my favorite book of the year (it wasn’t published this year, but I read it this year).

Alive, Alive Oh!: And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill is a collection of essays and memories written and published by the author/retired editor in her 90s.

If you haven’t read anything by Athill, I highly recommend you do so. She’s a distinct personality and that comes through in her writing, which, I know it’s cliche to say, is both poignant and humorous and most of the time humorously poignant.

Each chapter covers a specific memory or topic. Or memories as the vehicle for addressing big topics that include but are not limited to Athill’s miscarriage, aging, her childhood in Norfolk, fashion, WWII, colonialism in the Caribbean, her various love affairs, and her preference for being the “other woman.”

She writes it all in matter-of-fact prose with acknowledgement of her own “prosaic” tendencies. And yet, she does cover beauty, writing a passage on “looking” that, I’ll admit, gave me permission to enjoy a pastime I couldn’t have put a name to, which is looking, observing, really seeing something that interests you.

“Looking at things is never time wasted. If your children want to stand and stare, let them. When I was marvelling at the beauty of a painting or enjoying a great view it did not occur to me that the experience, however intense, would be of value many years later. But there it has remained, tucked away in hidden bits of my mind, and now out it comes, shouldering aside even the most passionate love affairs and the most satisfying achievements, to make a very old woman’s idle days pleasant instead of boring. And giving me this book, of memories, thoughts and reflections, which does – roughly – add up to being a report on what living for ninety-seven years has taught one rather lucky old woman.”

SargentPortrait

 A pic I took on my phone to remember the moment

Personally, I think of wandering the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where I went for the first time last summer. I was in a state of bliss, content to stand in front of the Sargent portraits til my eyeballs fell out. Now I know that looking is a thing, I’m going to spend more time doing it.

I also found out that I am not alone in how I have grown to perceive poetry and its place in my reading life over time.

“However, when someone asks me for my favourite poem and I answer Lear’s ‘ The Owl and the Pussy Cat ’, I am not being facetious. I really do prefer poems which tell a story to those that plumb the depths of experience, and those that depend largely on associations hooked up into a poet’s mind by words and images are lost to me. I read to see something, not to decipher codes.”

This was so validating for me. I got the impression that living life in your 90s is very freeing in the sense that you don’t worry about what people think of you (which Athill confirms for herself in the last chapter of the book). Wouldn’t it be great if I could give myself permission to live like that now?

Standard
Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

How to Read a Dress: AKA, I love a book with pictures!

HowToReadADressJust wrapped up How to Read a Dress by Lydia Edwards. It was such a treat. If you have any interest in women’s fashion or historic dress, this is a fun book to add to your collection.

And if you’re a novice in this area like I am, it’s a great primer. I now feel like I know which parts of a historic dress to notice, from bodice to skirt, sleeves, and trim.

The book is organized into chapters spanning specific periods from 1550-1600 to 1960-1970. Each spread introduces the dresses being featured and gives some historical background along with a short overview of the specific trends the dresses exemplify. We also get some commentary on who might’ve worn such a dress and what for—day, evening, wedding, etc.

Dress1

Just looking at the fabrics is treat enough for me. I mean those stripes are 1

And here’s the dress from the intro to the 1710-1790 section. Can you imaging wearing something like that?

Dress2

One thing I really like about this book is the fun graphics. Each section begins with a page of silhouettes featured in the following pages.

My own pic – excuse the bad lighting:

Silhouettes

The whole book is just so put together. I think I’m going to buy a copy just to have it as a resource. Also, if you’re interested in fashion history, Lydia Edwards’ Instagram account is a fun one to follow. She features a lot of dresses that aren’t in the book.

How fun is it to read a book with pictures?

Standard
Audiobooks, Top Ten Tuesday, What Shannon Read

10 of My Favorite Audiobooks

Walking

Walking home, listening to an audiobook, like I do

Top Ten Tuesday is sponsored by That Artsy Reader Girl.

I’m a day late, but I decided to post anyway. This week’s TTT is a “freebie,” meaning “make up your own topic.” So, because I love a good audiobook, I thought I’d highlight 10 of my faves.

In order for me to stick with an audiobook, I must must must like the reader’s voice, accent, inflection, and style. There are notable exceptions—Sweet Lamb of Heaven, for example, where the story/writing is so good that I’ll tolerate a terrible reader. But, for the most part, the reader is paramount.
So, with that bit of preamble, here we go.

10 of My Fave Audiobooks



049561. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, read by Davina Porter

Historical fiction, romance, sword fighting, and a great reader. The romance gets slightly ridiculous, but hey, that’s why you read this kind of book, for the dramatic departure from real life. And Davina Porter’s reading is on point.

This audiobook was on repeat in the car for awhile when Jake was younger. I think Harris’ voice is burned into my brain. But it’s a delightful book and the narration is fantastic.

Actress Juliet Stevenson is my top favorite reader. There’s something about her British accent. And she’s just great at doing voices without overacting those kinds of things. I’m hoping she’ll record herself reading the phone book someday just so I can fall asleep to it. One good thing about following a great reader is that they usually pick awesome books to read and I can always depend on Stevenson for that.

4. The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry, read by Jayne Entwistle

95607Another actress and reader with a fantastic British accent. But Entwistle’s voice is completely different and she really shows what it can do with the various characters in this very British children’s novel. It’s a Victorian boarding school, so you know I’m all about it. Entwistle is another reader I can count on to lead me to great books.

War5. The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, read by Jayne Entwistle

Another Entwistle for your listening pleasure. I adored this story. Usually I don’t pick up stories set in WWII, but this one touched on a topic of interest: children sent away from London during the bombing. The main character, Ada, will tug at your heartstrings from the get-go.

Flight.jpg6. Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, read by the author

Kingsolver isn’t my favorite reader, but she does, as the review on audiofile says, nail the main character’s Appalachian twang. And the writing is just so beautiful that I willingly overlooked Kinsolver’s imperfections as a narrator and got sucked into the story.

Kitchen7. The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom, read by Bahni Turpin and Orlagh Cassidy

I almost don’t want to write about this book because I loved it so much. I couldn’t do it justice. The story features two narrators as different characters, though the story centers on Cassidy as Lavinia, an indentured servant on a Southern plantation.

Cool story time – I actually emailed author Kathleen Grissom after I finished this book in tears and told her how much it affected me. She wrote back such a warm, kind response. One of my top author interactions ever.

Mare8. The Mare by Mary Gaitskill, read by Kyla Garcia, Christa Lewis, Sean Pratt, and Nicol Zanzarella

This book was more about the story than the readers for me, but, actually, I can still hear Ginger’s voice in my head. And it’s been two years since I listened to this book.

OCT9. The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery, read by the author

Another one where the story did more for me than the reader. Ask Ben. I’m still talking about this book. It’s one of those animal books that makes me want to be a vegan out of respect for the animals in it. But now we know plants have feelings, so if I keep on like this, I’ll have to start photosynthesizing.

BAD10. A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket, read by Tim Curry

Tim Curry is a great reader. I highly recommend listening to the books in the series that he reads. Lemony Snicket himself takes over at some point in the series and Jake and I were upset by this bait and switch.

Note: All links (except for Henry and Ribsy) go to book reviews on Audiofile because I think it’s a fantastic resource for audiobooks.

Here’s a link to the TTT post on That Artsy Reader Girl.

Standard
2018 Classics Challenge, Fiction, Uncategorized, What Shannon Read

Of Mice and Men

890Read my first Steinbeck novel yesterday. Somehow I managed to get through high school and college as an English major without reading a single volume of his work. Of Mice and Men looked like a nice, tidy little novella, so I picked it up at the library last week and read it in a couple of hours.

What a pleasure to go through such a tightly written work of fiction. I’ve been steeped in Brit lit from the 1700s and 1800s lately, so I just appreciated Steinbeck’s comparatively concise sentences.

Anyway, let’s see, given how tired I am today, if I can do this book any justice…Set during the Depression, Of Mice and Men is the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two itinerant ranch workers. We first find them on their way to Soledad, California, heading to a ranch to work. They’ve just left Weed, California, where Lennie, who’s mentally disabled, was accused of rape by a young woman on a ranch there. In truth, Lennie is fixated on touching soft things and when he saw the woman’s red dress, he wanted to touch it. But then he refused to let go of it and, apparently, scared her.

The pair make it to the ranch in Soledad and there, we meet the other ranch hands and learn some of their backstories. Wikipedia has a great run-down of those if you’re interested.

Lennie’s obsession with touching soft things leads to trouble that you can see building throughout the novella. Each time another character noticed or wondered about poor Lennie, I could feel my anxiety rising. Eventually, things come to a head and the ending is nothing short of poetic.

What struck me about this story was the absolute powerlessness of so many of the characters. George and Lennie dream of owning a parcel of land where they’ll farm and enjoy peace and quiet, with warm fires on cold nights and plenty to eat. It’s such a simple dream and yet, by the end of the novella, George despairs of ever achieving it.

Candy, an elderly ranch hand, has lost a hand in an accident. He’s still allowed to work odd jobs but he’s really not capable of much. In a blatant metaphor, Candy loses his beloved dog, who was also old and somewhat useless other than as a companion. A fellow ranch hand puts the dog down as it’s always in pain and can see Candy worrying the same thing will happen, or is happening, to him.

Those are just two examples of powerlessness in the novella. You get plenty more in the other characters, including the lonely wife of the owner’s son and Crooks, the African-American hand, who is isolated from the other. Throughout the novella is a pervasive sense that things are generally pretty terrible thanks to the down economy. While not hopeful, the story builds to a powerful ending. Thoroughly worth the read and I am pumped to find a few other Steinbeck novels to sink my teeth into. I’m comin’ for ya’, Grapes of Wrath…

Standard